Reference Series: Defense

Some of you (especially the young’uns) may not know about the illegal defense rule changes and why iso players, whether in the post or from the wing, are not nearly as efficient or useful as they used to be. Despite the rules being changed prior to the 2001-2002 season and modern defenses starting to appear around 2008, basketball conversation still flows as if it were the 90s. It’s not the 90s anymore. The conversation needs to change.

A brief history lesson – prior to 2001, the NBA’s “illegal defense” rules basically mandated that you had to guard a man. The illegal defense rules were removed for the 01-02 season and replaced with the modern D3S rule. What did this mean? Prior to 01-02, you could not double off the ball. You had to be somewhat close to your man at all times. All help defense had to come late and could not remain indefinitely. Basically, if you wanted to go 1 on 1, all you needed was for everybody to clear out and you had a true 1 on 1. You couldn’t guard space. You could double team in theory, but you basically could only double team from the nearest man and only if he was near you and he had the ball. It meant that basketball was entirely a 1-on-1 game.

This article from when the vote on whether to remove the illegal defense rules was taking place is absolutely incredible, and I’m going to liberally quote from it here:

The changes are meant to encourage more movement and passing, while discouraging teams from steering offenses toward isolation plays, in which a majority of a team’s players stand idle on the weakside to draw defenders away from the ball. That trend has been a factor in the decrease in scoring over the past decade.

”I think it’s a huge mistake,” Miami Coach Pat Riley said last week. ”There’s not going to be anybody able to drive. With these rules, you’re going to be back in the 70’s in scoring. You can’t force pace.”

”It sounds very bold, and it is,” acknowledged Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns owner and chairman of the committee that submitted the recommendation two weeks ago. ”But at this point, it’s better than a tweak. The fact is, we don’t have any fluidity in our game right now. There is less ball movement and less player movement than there’s ever been.”

Most opponents of the rule changes agree with Colangelo that the game has become too stagnant and that the choreography of teamwork has all but disappeared from many arenas. But they don’t feel such a dramatic change will suddenly turn the game into the free-flowing style that will raise television ratings and increase fan interest.

”It would change the sport,” said Tomjanovich, one of the most vocal opponents of the zone defense. ”We should create a situation where great players get a chance to excel. Zones neutralize great athletic ability. People want to see guys who can soar to the basket.”

Calling the committee’s proposed changes a ”knee-jerk reaction to complaints about the pace of the game,” Riley added: ”Fans like to see Vince Carter play one on one outside. That stuff is going to be history. Isolation basketball has been part of the game ever since I’ve been in it.”

Other coaches like George Karl and Phil Jackson — weary of the increased focus on defense and the plodding halfcourt sets that have led to the game’s stagnation — are fine with the changes.

”I’m totally O.K. with the zone,” Jackson said. ”It’s going to hurt Shaq, but it’s still part of what the game has to be.”

”It will mess the game up,” Portland point guard Damon Stoudamire said. ”I’m not a big advocate of zone defense. That’s the reason why players leave college. You’re going to put a box-and-one on Vince Carter? Fans are paying money to see these games. You can’t just take away what has essentially made the N.B.A. what it is: one-on-one basketball.”

That is one of the major concerns among opponents: that coaches will have more control of the game.

”People will be coming up with all kinds of crazy defenses,” Tomjanovich said. ”I want what’s best for the N.B.A. I’m not sure these rule changes are.”

The committee watched old footage of N.B.A. games spliced in with new footage. One of the offensive sets was that of the Rockets, in which a player like Steve Francis was isolated on one side of the floor against his defender, while four other players emptied out on the other side of the floor.

”A typical Houston set is giving one guy the ball and sending everyone else away from him,” Colangelo said. ”Hardly anyone else is even involved. It’s not the lack of ball movement. People wonder whatever happened to the lost art of offensive rebounding. Players are no longer in position to rebound because of some of these sets.”

Charlotte forward Jamal Mashburn said: ”I don’t see how that’s going to promote scoring. You look at teams like the Lakers and the Heat. Shaq and Alonzo will be in the lane. Imagine playing against David Robinson and Tim Duncan, standing there in the middle in a 3-2 zone.”

This article is an absolutely incredible look at what the NBA was like and was an amazing predictor of the following decade and even explains exactly why the NBA has evolved the way it has. Basically, in the 90s, teams figured out that the best way to exploit the rules was to give the ball to their best player and get the other 4 guys as far away as possible. This meant that the stars got to be stars. Can you imagine trying to defend today’s top players without double teams? Can you imagine trying to defend Harden or Curry with no help defense at all? What kind of offensive numbers do you think they would put up?

“Jordan spoke passionately. If teams were able to play zone defenses, he said, he never would have had the career he did.”

Reading through those above quotes though, everybody is right. People like seeing iso plays. They are aesthetically pleasing when they work. The highlight the stars. The changes did hurt iso players like Shaq and Vince Carter (Allen Iverson is a prime example of somebody who was amazing before the rule changes and not nearly as good after them). There was no instant change, and in fact, at first, the worst fears of the people against the change came true.

You can actually see defensive rule changes by just following eFG. There were a bunch of rule changes for the 97-98 season, and you can see eFG tank from the previous year. It stays low through 03-04 – these rule changes didn’t actually work particularly well at first! A big part of it was that it would take a generation for players who grew up under the new rules to start coming into the league with the proper skillset.

Still trying to boost offense, prior to the 04-05 season, “New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.” And the game finally opened up – 04-05 saw the birth of Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, and eFG started going back up. It hit .497 in 07-08, and it has remained between .496 and .502 since (with the exception of the lockout year). This is basically defenses and offense trading adjustments. You can see it when you watch – defenders cheat and move all over the court now, seemingly always doubling wherever the ball is, and ball movement is extra important to unlock these defenses.

The most efficient modern offense is fairly easy to explain. It’s a pick and roll, followed by the ball handler getting into the paint and either going to the rim or passing, and then kicking the ball around trying to find a 3 or a layup/dunk. There’s usually multiple picks set on every play trying to free people. This means that, 15+ years after those rule changes that people were afraid were going to remove dynamism from the game, those players are back in vogue, as long as they have the right skillset and have shooters around them. Shooters, which, prior to around 2013, simply didn’t exist in high enough volume.

The defense is a little harder to explain. The short version is that the defense floods the side of the court where the ball is with an extra defender who is only guarding space/playing help D/providing doubles. This wasn’t legal until the illegal defense rule changes and wasn’t utilized until Thibodeau created it in roughly 07-08, and the Celtics that won the title that year. Pretty much all modern defenses are versions of Thibs’ defense, just like most modern offenses are versions of D’Antoni’s offense (include the purest version of it currently run by, uh, Mike D’Antoni).

The best way to show the difference in defense then vs. now is to just go to the tape.

Against post players, under modern defenses, help comes either from the weakside or from the weakest shooter. Here’s a pretty good breakdown. These are hard doubles. Here’s another example. Basically, you force the big to either make a tough cross-court pass which is far enough that the defense can rotate and recover, or you force him to pass back out to a covered strong-side teammate to reset the offense. There’s also soft doubles, where a weakside defender will “show” but not fully commit, which is just a different kind of double where the post player has an extra split second to operate but it’s easier to recover if he passes out.

Now, take a look at a few minutes of this, which is how defense used to be played. You’ll notice that if he gets doubled, it’s always from the closest strongside defender, and it’s usually late. You’ll also notice how often he goes baseline. This is basically impossible today. A modern defense would have the primary defender sit on his baseline hip, forcing him to the middle, where there would be a weakside help defender. You’re never going to see that in videos against the best known post players because that defense wasn’t legal. You can see the same thing here. An occasional late double, or a weak swipe, or maybe a second body from the closest offensive player (man, bad spacing on so many of these), but no modern doubles. They couldn’t legally do more than that. Another thing you don’t really see is fronting, which they couldn’t do because there was no weakside defender to help if you got beat.

Against non-post players, just watch this video. This is a fantastic breakdown of what I’ve written about here, with a lot of video and quotes about how the defense changes really sunk non-post players. Think of every drive you’ve seen that ends in the ball getting knocked away by a secondary defender. There’s no such thing as a 1-on-1 drive or play anymore. Defenses work as a team, and you have to be aware of defenders that could be coming from anywhere. It’s much harder to be a good iso player because help can come on time and can come from anywhere, which are huge changes.

All of the people quoted above who said that the defense changes would only hurt the product were correct – there needed to be further rule changes to open up the game, and techniques needed to be developed to bust zones. These days, you will very rarely see true zone defenses, with Rick Carlisle being one of the very few coaches I’m aware of who still keeps it in his bag of tricks. But tempo and movement are back, incredible athletic feats are back, and ratings and interest are up. They got it right! Eventually!

Recent drafts have featured players who were praised for their abilities in these situations, and they have predictably struggled, because while players can still find themselves in these situations, they are few and far between. It’s not bad to have the skills, but they are no longer primary, game-changing skills. The next AI or the next Shaq can’t exist, because the defenses they faced at their most dominant don’t exist.

It’s simply long past time to adjust analysis of these players. Judge them by their abilities in the modern game, not a game that simply doesn’t exist anymore.